Section: Arts

Venus in Fur amplifies dynamic between actors and directors

For an actor, there is nothing more common, and paradoxically mundane and nerve-wracking, than an audition: You go in, and do your monologue. If you’re lucky they’ll have you do it again, and you’re done. The whole thing takes 15 minutes, tops. One might not imagine this process to be fruitful material for an hour-and-a-half play, yet in the hands of a skilled playwright and production team, it becomes wonderfully compelling theater. This is what KCDC’s next senior thesis show, directed by Anika Massmann ’18, and starring Catherine Collison ’18 and Isaiah Stavchansky ’18, has in store. This past Monday, I had the immense pleasure of attending one of the early technical rehearsals for Kenyon College Dance and Dramatic Club’s production of David Ives’s 2010 play Venus in Fur.

Ives based the play on a 19th century German novel, Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, which is about a man who begs a woman to enter into a sado-masochistic relationship and struggles to maintain submission when all he wants is dominance.

Ives’s play centers on Thomas Novacheck (Stavchansky), a playwright and director who has adapted the novel for the stage, and Vanda Jordan (Collison), a young actress who comes to audition for the female lead.

The play’s action is confined to the audition, in which actor and playwright assume  the characters of another woman named Vanda, Vanda von Dunayev, a woman regal and poised, “a typical woman of her day, despite her professed principles,” and Severin von Kushemski, a man restrained and repressed by an abusive past.

As the two explore the play, Novacheck’s deep affinity to the character of Kushemski becomes darkly apparent as he seeks to dominate and be dominated by Jordan, who is as mysterious and strange as the character she portrays. Ives’s decision to use an audition as the play’s central conflict brings the work’s theme exquisitely to life. In an audition, actors and directors both hold and submit to each other’s power: A director holds an actor’s fate in their hands by deciding whether that person gets the job.

The actor’s power lies in the fact that without them, there is no show. The curious power of an actor at an audition is that they are asking to submit to the director’s power, but, as Vanda Jordan remarks, “the more [one] submits, the more power [one] has.” When you ask someone to dominate you, you are asking them to do something for you; the more you are dominated, the more the dominator does exactly what you want, and therefore the more power you have.

This strange contradiction is at the heart of the play: Where is power located, who really has it and why? If I willingly relinquish power, do you truly have it? Or must you take it? Underlining this point is a heating pipe, going straight from the floor to the ceiling, occupying center stage. This pipe is alternately used as a stripper pole and a whipping post. A stripper, dancing on their pole, creates an illusory experience; the audience believes they control the stripper, when in reality, the stripper decides what they do, and when and how they do it. However, when used as  a whipping post, it can be seen that sexual agency can be dangerously undermined by false submission.

This daunting play has more than met its equal in the thesis team of director Massmann and actor Collison. Collison’s performance is magnetic, commanding attention from the moment she crashes onto stage. If at first she may seem somewhat vapid, it will quickly become apparent that this is an act put on as much by the character as the actor. Collison has buried herself beneath layers of misdirection and complexity, keeping the audience guessing as to her motives and identity throughout; she is able to transition between characterizations so smoothly that the divisions between Jordan and Dunayev become impossibly blurred, confounding any attempt at explication. It is, in short, masterful.

Massmann’s direction is precise and thoughtful, delicately walking the play’s fine lines between its potentials for blatant misogyny or a ham-fisted retribution, between the obvious and the subtle. She has managed to take a play which could easily lose itself in its own theatrical esoterica and surrealist nature, one which could easily become heavy-handed, consumed in its own message, and deliver a deft, sophisticated piece of theater, as clear as it is sharp, shocking and provocative.

Get your tickets now. You won’t want to miss this remarkable piece of Kenyon theater.

The show runs Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Hill Theater. Tickets are on sale now at the Bolton box office. The show runs about 90 minutes with no intermission.

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